Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson now faces two dozen civil lawsuits brought by women who level the same overarching assertion: The former Texans star assaulted and distressed them in connection with massage therapy.
On Monday, accusers’ attorney Tony Buzbee filed what is the 24th active case in Harris County, Texas. The complaint emerged only a few days after Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, suggested in an interview with Houston Sports Radio 610 that Watson making a massage therapist uncomfortable is not a crime and that a “happy ending” to a massage is not a crime unless payment is for the sexual activity. Watson himself has adamantly denied any wrongdoing.
In her complaint, Katy Williams (through Buzbee) says that she owned a massage therapy business in Houston. She recalls feeling “excited and encouraged” when an NFL star contacted her shortly after she graduated from massage therapy school. Williams says she and Watson spoke on the phone before they met. During the conversation, Watson allegedly expressed he “really wanted to support black-owned businesses.” He also allegedly told her, “I want you to be comfortable. You do not have to wear your scrubs.”
Williams says her first session with Watson occurred without incident, though she noted that he paid her $100 for a $55 service. During what would be their second and final session, Williams contends she became “very uncomfortable” and “scared” as Watson “became aggressive” in directing her hand movements. She maintains Watson had an erection, causing his towel to fall off. Then, her complaint charges, Watson masturbated in front of Williams and “some of his ejaculate got on [her] chest and face.” Williams says she has since suffered from depression and anxiety. Watson’s alleged conduct caused Williams to “quit massage therapy altogether” and has “transformed her business into strictly selling beauty products.”
As Watson faces another lawsuit, there are three key factors to consider:
- Twenty-four separate lawsuits—not one class action—will make it harder for Watson to gain finality.
Watson’s litigation is unusual in several ways. Most significantly, there are two dozen active lawsuits brought by individual plaintiffs. This isn’t one class action where a few of the plaintiffs represent a group with comparable claims and where Watson’s attorneys could negotiate one, global settlement. The NFL was able to settle more than 99% of concussion-related claims brought by retired players and their families in part because those claims were contained in one class action. That litigation vehicle made for efficient negotiation. The same would be true of Brian Flores’ case if Judge Valerie Caproni certifies it as a class action.
Although each Watson plaintiff is represented by the same attorney, each will decide on her own whether to resolve the litigation through a settlement and, if so, under what terms would a settlement be acceptable. Each might have different demands as to an acceptable arrangement, including an appropriate dollar figure for harms suffered and whether, and in what form, Watson must publicly apologize—and what specific words he must use. There could be substantial differences of opinions among the Watson plaintiffs on those issues.
Watson, meanwhile, would likely object to making an apology that the NFL could use to justify a lengthy suspension. Also, while a grand jury declined to indict Watson for a crime, the Fifth Amendment’s safeguard from double jeopardy doesn’t apply to the grand jury stage. At the discretion of prosecutors, another grand jury could be convened, meaning Watson must remain cautious in his wording.
Each of the 24 cases therefore has moving and asymmetric parts. If Watson wants to resolve all the cases while protecting his own interests, he’ll need to thread the needle. If Watson resolves some or even most of the lawsuits, but not all, the litigation will continue, and potentially damaging disclosures could continue to surface.
- The NFL can punish Watson more than once.
The NFL is expected to announce a disciplinary decision on Watson, whose attorneys say he engaged in consensual sexual relations with three of the plaintiffs, before Browns’ training camp opens on July 28.
For two reasons, the announcement won’t necessarily be the final word on Watson and NFL discipline.
First, either Watson or the NFL can appeal the decision of the assigned disciplinary officer, retired federal Judge Sue Robinson. The appeal would go to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who would then function as an arbitrator (or would assign that responsibility to a person of his choosing).
Second, the NFL could suspend Watson at a later point if new information surfaces suggesting Watson engaged in conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the NFL. There are several ways “new information” could surface. No trials for Watson are expected until 2023, or later. Barring settlements, that would leave many months for pretrial discovery, which involves the taking of sworn testimony and sharing of emails and other correspondences, and various hearings to occur. Damaging details could be leaked to the media.
Other women could sue Watson, too, and in the process raise allegations that Robinson wasn’t aware of during her review process. This presents an uncertain landscape for Watson and for the Browns. The team signed Watson to a five-year, $230 million guaranteed deal and expects him to lead the team into the playoffs during that term. Depending on the litigation’s trajectory, it’s possible Watson will miss multiple stretches of games.
- Hardin’s comments reflect questionable legal and public relations strategies.
Hardin’s remarks on sports radio illustrate where an attorney can make a technically accurate statement but nonetheless harm his or her client’s interests. Hardin is correct that making another person uncomfortable is not, by itself, a crime, and that a massage customer who pays for a massage and then, separate from the transaction, has a consensual sexual interaction with the the therapist hasn’t committed a crime. Also, the remark is unlikely to be admissible in any trial since it was made by Hardin, not Watson, in a media interview.
Still, to the extent the remark reflects Watson’s legal strategy, it’s problematic. Both jurors and the NFL could take adverse inferences from the “happy ending” statement, which Hardin insists concerns a hypothetical situation rather than Watson.
To wit, Williams’ complaint draws specific attention to the remark, construing “happy endings” as an unenlightened admission that advances the accusers’ core contention.
“The public comments made by Watson’s defense team,” the complaint charges, “evidence a belief system that explains Watson’s conduct: When Watson contacts a random massage therapist on Instagram for a massage, unbeknownst to the therapist, Watson is wanting more than a massage.” The complaint goes on to note that Watson (allegedly) doesn’t express any interest in the therapist’s qualifications or skills. He mainly wants to know if they’re willing to meet with him. The complaint also depicts Watson as consistently seeking sex-related activities in addition to massages and being insistent about sexualizing the therapy.
If jurors believe that Watson directed some of his payment for anticipation of sexual services, then they would likely believe he engaged in prostitution, a crime and an ineffective defense for a tort. The NFL, particularly Robinson or Goodell, could reach the same conclusion.